Sergino Dest flew to Barcelona on a Tuesday and finally signed for the Catalan club on Thursday. Between landing at El Prat Airport and signing a five-year contract at Camp Nou, Bayern Munich tried on the phone to revive a contract they had been working on since January. The German giants had fought, however, and the appointment of Ronald Koeman at Barca, along with the sale of Nelson Semedo, allowed the La Liga to jump into the queue. Dest has always preferred Barca to Bayern, but if the German and European champions hadn’t haggled over the price with Ajax, they would have happily moved to Munich.
All in all, it’s a transfer saga that fans of the U.S. men’s national team will love. Gregg Berhalter’s team is blessed with a generation of young, talented players who work in the biggest European clubs. Dest is one of those players, and the fact that he’s been coveted by two of Europe’s heavyweights shows how high he is at the game.
Besides Dest there is Giovanni Reyna from Borussia Dortmund, Christian Pulisic from Chelsea and Weston McKennie from Juventus, to name just three. This list could go on. Expectations are rising ahead of the 2022 World Cup, although Dest points out that 2026, when the US joins Canada and Mexico to host the biggest soccer competition, is a more realistic target for success.
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When Dest, who appears confident but humble, says the USMNT could even win the World Cup, he means business. The Dutch-born defender turned 20 on November 3rd but amazed Barca staff with his maturity. Perhaps that was always evident from the level-headed way of thinking he used to make the difficult decision as a teenager to represent the United States through the Netherlands.
Sergino Dest explains why he chose Barcelona and how playing with “the best players in the world” motivates him.
After just one season with Ajax’s senior team, Dest already looks quite at home at Barca. He made his debut at left-back against Sevilla FC and then ousted Sergi Roberto at right-back for the Clasico against Real Madrid just 23 days after joining. Barca lost the game, but Dest’s reputation improved and he was wildly viewed as one of the best players on the pitch. It’s the result of hard work … and no vacation in years.
While preparing for his first U.S. camp in a year, due to a coronavirus-disrupted calendar of games against Wales and Panama, he sat down with ESPN to discuss life with Barcelona and the USMNT.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
ESPN: How was your first month as a Barcelona player?
Target: It was amazing, my dream came true! I’m playing for Barcelona right now. I think I had a great debut against Sevilla and thought I would have played well in that game. That being said, we lost the Clasico, but it’s just getting started for me, so hopefully I can [achieve] wonderful things with this beautiful club and developing as best I can.
ESPN: Koeman showed a lot of confidence in you when he put you in the starting XI for the Clasico.
Target: This is good for me, I feel good. Of course you have to find your place in the team and play – that’s why I want to just play a little first, get my place, get my chemistry with the team and then slowly grow more and more into the team. Koeman gave me confidence and now it’s up to me. I have to play good games and develop myself. He gave me the chances, but you know it’s up to me whether I get them to work or not.
ESPN: You have just turned 20, but you have managed to adapt to the demands in Barcelona much faster than experienced players. What’s the secret?
Target: I always go out with my own quality and try to play with it. Sometimes when I’m looking [my teammates] In the square I said, “Wow, I saw you on TV a few years ago.” Now I’m playing with the best player in the world (Lionel Messi). That is amazing!
For me personally, I always try to work on my skills on the ball, so I feel confident when I have the ball. When you are confident it is easier to play with great players than when you are not confident. I think that is the big key for me. Left or right back, it doesn’t matter to me. I play where the coach needs me. If I have to play the left wing, I play the left wing. It doesn’t matter – I just want to play, but to be honest, I think I’m more comfortable on the right side.
ESPN: And you got used to the city quickly too.
Target: I’m just getting used to it. Everything happened so quickly. Two or three days after I signed, we played against Seville. There hasn’t been much rest. I am in my own place now. Everything is more relaxed. I can concentrate more on football. I settled in very quickly.
Barcelona is a really beautiful city. I like it here, I feel at home. There wasn’t a moment when I wanted to go back [to Amsterdam]. I’m good here, I want to develop, train really hard every day and then relax and rest when I have to. Other than that, I’m just in my house relaxing and it’s just a beautiful city. I also feel at home there in the USA with the USMNT.
ESPN: Did it help to have Dutch speakers like Koeman, his assistants Alfred Schreuder and Frenkie de Jong in the club? And USMNT teammate Konrad de la Fuente, who is at Barcelona B?
Target: It’s better for me, of course it’s a good thing. It’s easier to talk to them when I don’t understand [things]. I also take Spanish classes, which is important to me and also Catalan. I ask them questions. If I don’t understand it in Spanish, I ask her: what does this mean? What does that mean? They help me and I learn everything quickly and get used to everything in Barcelona.
ESPN: You have spoken a lot about Messi since you signed. How good is he at training?
Target: Yes, he’s really, really good. He has some incredible moments just a joy to see.
ESPN: Along with you, there are many young players who are getting chances at Barca. Ansu Fati and Pedri both play regularly. Do we see the next big generation in the club?
Target: It’s really nice to be part of this generation. I think it’s also good to play with a few young players so they can adjust to the level. This way, [Barca] already have players for the future. I think it’s really smart that Barca are doing this now and giving us the chance to improve faster.
ESPN: How’s La Liga doing? They were driven in depth with games against Sevilla and Real Madrid.
Target: I know! It was a tough game. La Liga is a tough league. It’s a great league to play for me personally. Since we play a lot of good games, I have to concentrate on every game. It’s good for me, it’s good to focus on every game. You have to be focused and focused, and that’s good for me I think. I am growing up to be a man. To play all these tough games I think I’ll develop a lot faster.
Sergino Dest is optimistic about the USMNT’s potential with so many players breaking into big clubs.
ESPN: What did Koeman ask of you as a player?
Target: Not a lot to be honest. I’m trying to play my game. The first is to defend – you know I’m a defender so I’m trying to defend a lot right now. If possible, I’ll go forward. Before at Ajax, I may have gone a little too far and forgot mine [defensive duties]but now I don’t forget. So I’m looking for my moments to move forward. I have the feeling that I am slowly becoming more confident as a team, and I have the feeling that in a few weeks I will give all I have to myself. Of course I give everything I have right now, but then I feel more comfortable in the team and I think it’s better for me.
ESPN: You are one of many USMNT players in Europe’s biggest clubs. Another is Weston McKennie. You recently played against his Juventus team.
Target: Yes! I haven’t spoken to him [before] the game, but he told me when I signed for Barcelona: “I’ll see you in the Champions League.” It’s nice to play against him. We’re good friends in the national team.
ESPN: Then there’s Reyna, Pulisic …
Target: I haven’t met Gio Reyna so I don’t know him as a person, but I’ve played with Pulisic. He’s a really good player; They’re both really good players. I hope they keep working and we can achieve something nice in the years to come. Pulisic is a really great player, he’s fast, [and] dribble really well. I’ve seen the first couple [U.S.] Practice sessions before I made my debut against Mexico, he was so good at training. I had a couple of recovery sessions so I just watched the workout but it was almost unstoppable. And in the games you see, he plays really well. Hopefully we can get a good connection on the field and play really well together.
ESPN: Could he play for any club in the world?
Target: Yes / Yes.
ESPN: Then the youngsters will come through. You obviously know Konrad at Barca, Alex Mendez at Ajax …
Target: These guys are growing, they’re coming. You are about to reach the senior national team and Konrad [has just had his first senior call-up]. There is also Chris Richards at Bayern Munich. Hopefully everyone will keep working hard. I think we’ll have a really good team in the future. For me, it’s all about myself and if I can help others, I’m there for them. But I have to focus on myself to develop even further. Hopefully they will do the same and I think we can do something great.
Juventus’ McKennie is excited to speak to Cristiano Ronaldo & Lionel Messi with Sergino Dest from Barcelona.
ESPN: What does trainer Gregg Berhalter like to work with?
Target: Communication with him is really important. I have good contact with him – I like him a lot, as a trainer and as a person. And he helps me a lot, man. After almost every game we talk and he asks me: what do you think of this game? What do you think you can improve We only speak. I think it’s good to have someone really busy with things like that. I think he’s the right person with that. I think he does a lot of players and I am very happy with him as a coach.
ESPN: Did you know about the media explosion that would follow, especially in the US, when you signed for Barca and became the first USMNT player to play for the club in a competitive game?
Target: Not really. When I signed for Barca, I didn’t want to see if I could be the first American to play for Barcelona, no. I made the decision for myself. I thought it was good for my development, I have the chance to play for a few minutes.
But when I had to choose between the Netherlands and the USA, I had that in mind: OK, [I have] two options but what are the advantages in Holland and the advantages in the USA? In the USA., [there is] more to me, and I’ve played all of my youth in the US so it was a little bit of loyalty too. I made a good choice and I hope I can make it big in the US.
Soccer is not the biggest sport in the US. Hopefully we as a generation can let it grow and win more fans from the USA who support us in football and make football a little bigger in the USA.
ESPN: Tell us about your connection with the US.
Target: My father is from New York, Brooklyn. My first time in the US was in 2014. I went to New York, to Queens – that’s where my uncle lives. At that point, the 2014 World Cup was open when Germany won it. But unlike then, I had never been to America much. I have a family in New York and a family in other cities.
ESPN: Do you notice any added hunger on the team after missing the last World Cup?
Target: A little, to be honest. I see that everyone wants to take part in a World Cup, especially with the US national team. The US players want to take part in the World Cup and achieve something big for the US. We haven’t got that far, we [will] try to win it. Everyone is hungry for it. I think the next generation will be something new and we will prove it to the rest of the world.
ESPN: is 2022 too early to win?
Target: I mean the ball is round so we always have chances, but I think we may have more chances in 2026. We have a lot of young players on the team – I think we should go and experience [the 2022 World Cup]. I just hope we get far, but we can’t say that yet.
ESPN: It’s going to be very special with the US co-hosting in 2026.
Target: I think everyone is especially motivated because it’s in the US. We have to do something really good. Of course we talk about it. Everyone wants to take part in a World Cup, but there is something special about playing in your own country.
USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter breaks off the upcoming camp with mostly young, raw perspectives.
ESPN: This week is your first time with the USMNT in a year. Last November was your last call. It was long ago.
Target: Wow that was it! That’s a long time, man, almost a year. It’s good to see the players again. Hopefully, with the next World Cup in 2022, the COVID-19 situation will not interrupt this. I don’t like it for a lot of reasons because we can’t play with it [fans]. In some countries, including Barcelona, the rules are currently becoming stricter. Hopefully everything will be fine in the future, otherwise it’s not nice to play. You can’t play without it [fans].
ESPN: Was that the downside of your first month in Barcelona? Playing the Clasico in an empty stadium must have been strange.
Target: It is really weird. You feel the pressure, but you don’t really feel it. And I think the pressure is what makes football. it does the sport, the fans, everything around it. It’s not boring because you want to play whatever is nice – it’s just a lot better with the fans and outside support. My [Barcelona] Teammates told me there was so much pressure [with fans at the Clasico] But I have to see it with my own eyes
ESPN: Even with the national team as a Barca player you are now under more pressure.
Target: I am prepared for that. You know, just play the game and don’t worry about the outside. I’m in the game right now. When I retire I’m out of the game then I can be concerned about the things outside, but now I’m in the game so I won’t let that affect me.